No child grows up hearing — or asking — for numbers. Instead the four words, “tell me a story,” are the ones deeply embedded into our human software. And that will never change. But the power of numbers, the importance of data, is growing exponentially and becoming essential to how we understand larger narratives.
Then this is not new. The use of statistics, counts, numbers, all have always been a part of how we tell stories. Buffalo hide paintings are great examples from another century. Pictographs recorded people, buffalo, soldiers, villages, and meteor storms. The data was recorded. Then we did the same things with ledgers, books, computer tapes, and a couple of decades ago floppy discs, CDs, and thumb drives. Today we carry more data capacity in our phone than we ever had in our offices and homes. And what’s on that recording? IBM once estimated that the content of all of human history totaled some 5 exabytes (or five billion gigabytes of information). Now we produce that many videos, pictures, and words every couple of days.
We need more useful numbers — and this is one of Indian country’s great challenges in an era of both austerity and transparency. In 1900 the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was $8.2 million. It took nearly 80 years before that funding level topped a billion dollars. Then the first $2 billion was in 2001. Last year $ 2.6 billion. And the Obama administration’s current request is for $2.924 billion. (I am working on a history of Indian appropriations — more on that soon.)
So I have been thinking about these numbers in the context of the recent narrative about Native youth. The stories themselves are inspiring, starting with the president’s visit with young people in North Dakota, followed by the recent meeting at the White House. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: “So we all need to work together to invest deeply — and for the long-term — in these young people, both those who are living in their tribal communities … and those living in urban areas across this country. These kids have so much promise — and we need to ensure that they have every tool, every opportunity they need to fulfill that promise.”
This is where the numbers and the story intersect.
A commitment to invest deeply and for the long-term requires serious cash and resources. The president’s budget matches that rhetoric with a budget request of $1 billion to promote Generation Indigenous, an initiative designed for Native American youth. “In today’s global economy a high quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite to success,” the Interior Department said. “President Obama set out a vision for a 21st century education system grounded in both high academic standards and tribal values and traditions. Making advanced education opportunities available for tribal members is a high priority for tribes, who see education as the path to economic development and a better quality of life for their communities through an educated and skilled tribal member workforce.”
Today’s Native youth are perfectly cast for this initiative. Even on remote reservations or Alaska villages this is the digital Native generation. They have grown up collecting more data on their phones — music, Facebook posts, video and photographs — than any other generation in history. They grow up connected to other Native youth across the country making deep digital friendships with dozens, even hundreds of other Native American youth. That’s new. It’s exponential.
I also think about the digital opportunity ahead for young people who live in a remote community. You can live anywhere in the world and produce videos for YouTube. Or write computer code. In 1971 a Unix computer had a couple hundred thousand lines of code. Today the software for a modern car has more than 90 million lines of code. That’s a lot of jobs for young people who have the right skills. And why not Generation Indigenous?
Of course that means Congress will have to actually appropriate the kind of dollars to make youth a priority. Not just a story, but a future that’s bolstered by real numbers.
Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.